Silkworm Trivia

More fun silkworm trivia from Weaving Today’s BeWeave It column!

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Imagine flowing down the aisle in a darkened room in a silk wedding dress that glows red, orange, and green under a UV light. Scientists in Japan have been experimenting with breeding mutant silkworms that produce silk that glows under a UV light.  These silkworms have had genetic material from other organisms inserted into their genomes so they produce a silk with fluorescent qualities.  The transgenic critters have a red glowing protein from Discosoma corals, orange from the Fungia concinna coral, or a green fluorescent protein from jellyfish.  Under white light the silk has a very pale color, but turn out the lights and turn on the UV light (think black lights from the 70s and 80s) and you have fabric that glows in the dark!  The fluorescence is stable and continues to glow for years.  Because the proteins are denatured with high heat scientists had to modify removing the serein from the cocoon.  Wedding dress designer, Yumi Katsura, has designed gowns incorporating the fluorescent silk.  What will the rest of the wedding party wear?!

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How about pink silkworms, cocoons, and silk!  While silk is a renewable resource, processing and dyeing it is not very environmentally friendly.  Reeling and washing silk requires a lot of water and dyeing silk, and other fibers, not only requires large amounts of water, but releases toxins into the environment as well.  In an effort to reduce both the water usage and toxic byproducts of dyeing, scientists have been looking at pre-dyeing silk by feeding the silkworms dyes that would permanently color their silk.

Biologists and engineers at the CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory in India have been experimenting with feeding silkworms mulberry leaves that had been dipped in azo dyes.  Other dyes have been used, but they are very expensive.  Several dyes were used but only one red dye succeeded in turning the caterpillars pink and infusing the final silk fiber a lovely pink.  The other dyes were metabolized out of the digestive system in different ways, mostly in the proteins surrounding the silk fiber.  The cocoons were colored but once the silk was processed the surface proteins were washed away along with the color.  Work will continue to find dyes that are not toxic to the silkworms and create silks with color that is permanent and not fugitive.

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Would you rather have your silkworms spin you a silk parasol?  Well, scientists at MIT’s Media Lab are doing just that!  A combination of 3D printing robotics and a silkworm’s need to spin silk have been combined to explore how to build architectural structures more efficiently.  A 3D printer was programmed to act like a silkworm and spread a kilometer long silk fiber along a group of panels that were then put together to form a pavilion that was hung from the ceiling.  Silkworms were then placed onto the panels and allowed to find their place and spin.  By manipulating the density of the original silk fiber, the scientists were able to create openings that allow for seasonal and daily time estimates due to the positions of the apertures.

 

So next I would like to see a 3D printer create the basic structure for the transgenic silkworms to spin me a parasol that glows in the dark, all three colors please, with a lovely pink strip from the azo dye consuming silkworms!

 

Nerd Corner: Wool Carder Bees

I was scanning through scientific literature looking for something specific and became totally distracted when I saw an article about wool carder bees.  Naturally, being a spinner, I had to check it out!  European wool carder bees, Anthidium manicatum, are in the family Megachilidae which is home to leaf-cutter bees also known as mason bees. Although originally from Europe, they are well traveled and have been introduced to such varied places as the Canary Islands and several countries in South America.  They arrived on our shores sometime before 1963, where they were found in New York State.  Since then, they have spread across the U.S.  and were documented in California in 2007.  They may also have been intentionally brought to the U.S. for their pollenating ability.  No consensus on whether the European wool carder bee was accidentally introduced or if it was a government sanctioned attempt at taking over the pollenating duties of the native honey bee (http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/species-of-invasive-bee-leaves-carnage-in-its-wake.html), you will have to decide that for yourself.  In their native Europe, wool carder bees are found primarily in gardens in England and are in fact the only Anthidium in England where they consume pollen like other bees, preferring long throated blue flowers of Old World origin.  There are also native species, A. maculosum and A. palliventre which live their lives in a similar manner, supporting the theory that was an accidental introduction.

wool bee on yellow flower

wool bee on yellow flower

wool bee on purple flower

wool bee on purple flower

The wool carder bees are a small yellow and black bee and true to their family, they cut bits of leaves and flowers from such plants as roses, azaleas, red buds and bougainvillea to use in constructing their nests.  The males aggressively defend their territory and their females from any other insect that enters that space, including honey bees.  They are not ‘little terrorists’ as are their African counterparts.  They are just pollinators going about the business of pollinating, something they do very well.  According to an article from UC Davis (http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/24881) they do not have 5 stingers or go to war with honey bees.  The males do have five small appendages on the end of the abdomen that they use for defense and they are very aggressive about defending their territory.

male wool carder bee butt

male wool carder bee butt

But it is the females that earned the name ‘wool carder’ for the species.  The female bees will find hirsute (hairy) leaves, such as lamb’s ears, and scrape the fuzz off the surface.  She will bundle it against her abdomen and fly back to her nest where she will use it to line the nest for her offspring.  She selects a cavity or hole and uses that to line her nest where she will lay her eggs.  This is a solitary bee and does not form hives like the honey bees that many of us are familiar with.

bee with fluff

bee with fluff

harvested leaves

harvested leaves

wool carder bee nest

wool carder bee nest

A wool carding bee…now how cool is that?!?

I don’t remember if I ever found what I was originally looking for, I found something much better!

For more information:

http://www.honeybeesuite.com/native-pollinator-wool-carder-bee/

http://www.fws.gov/humboldtbay/beeguide/wool-carderbee.html

Nerd Corner: The Golden Orb Shawl

Ginger writes:
A spider in my house is perfectly safe. This has nothing to do with a love of spiders, or an eco-friendly need to spare bug eating predators, or even a Buddha-like moral sense. No. I have such a phobia of spiders that I can’t stay in the same room or calmly comment about a spider’s presence so someone else can deal with the “emergency.” They are perfectly safe because I can’t get close enough to sweep one out the door — never mind kill one.

Spider Silk Textile

Spider Silk Textile Panel (Lamba Akotifahana), 2008. Madagascar. Seven panels joined: spider silk, plain weave with supplementary brocading wefts and patterning warps. Source: Art Institute of Chicago.

Picture, if you will, a large spider innocently walking across a room, blocking the only exit. And then picture a woman standing on a step stool (spider might run across the floor in her direction) with a broom to keep said spider at bay and wearing dishwashing gloves (spider might actually touch the broom). Her heart is pounding; she is sweating profusely. My son was amused, especially since his mother squealed like a little girl as he scooped up the spider and took it outside. I was decidedly NOT amused!

Now imagine the mix of fascination and revulsion I felt when I read about a piece of fabric woven from golden orb spiders’ webs! (Read some amazing exhibition notes from The Art Institute of Chicago and The American Museum of Natural History and the Victoria and Albert Museum on their spider silk textiles.) I had to read the articles and then look at the pictures of the fabric. It is an amazing golden color that shimmers and has a brilliant visual texture. It is absolutely stunning. Simply, wordlessly stunning! Who did it and how? Here’s a link to a high-res photo of the spider itself.

Detail of embroidered cape made of spider silk, made by Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, 2011

Detail of an embroidered cape made of spider silk, made by Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, 2011. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum.

A spider’s web is a sticky net in which it snares its supper. And the golden orb spider (Nephila spp.) spins one  that can span 15-20 feet, or more! Their webs are elastic and amazingly tough, and yes, they are golden in color. I live in Florida where golden orb spiders are ubiquitous. Here they are called banana spiders because of their large yellow abdomens. The spider that lives in that web is HUGE!

I will never weave a fabric made from the filaments of any spider web. I can’t touch it or even begin to imagine collecting the raw material! But I’m grateful that some else can. I’d love to see the shawl in person but I don’t think I could ever actually touch it. So spiders and their webs are perfectly safe from me…give me a venomous reptile any time!